Following a 1970s Jesus Movement conversion, I served in youth ministry, where I subjected poor students to nearly every fad imaginable — all, I told myself, to have young people come to Christ. I then served as a pastor, an office I have held for thirty years. Along the way, I have made many blunders — far too many to chronicle here. One mistake that I hope to avoid, however, is ministering with external methods that cannot give life.
Over the last thirty years, I have noticed a great reduction among my repertoire of ministerial gimmicks, while reliance on a smaller number of powerful tools has significantly increased. One thing I’m pretty sure of: this pastor has very little to offer other than God’s Word, and the effectiveness of that depends on the work of the Holy Spirit.
It is good for pastors to know that if our ministry of the Word is to have effect, it must have the Spirit’s anointing. In fact, we must become more aware of the fact that if our ministry is to glorify God, we must decrease as the Spirit’s work must increase.
What I have said reflects the teaching of the apostle Paul. He declared that “the letter kills but the Spirit gives life” (2 Cor. 3:6). A grasp of this basic truth is important to our understanding of the law. It is also vital for ministry that lasts.
First, note that this verse puts to rest the idea that heeding every formula, jot, or tittle of the law can save. Obedience to the law was never intended to be understood as the way by which we gain a right standing with God. Paul repeatedly denied that we are justified by the law. He wrote, for example, “Therefore, no one will be declared righteous in his sight by observing the law” (Rom. 3:20) and we are “justified by faith in Christ and not by observing the law, because no one will be justified by observing the law” (Gal. 2:16). He stated later: “Clearly no one is justified before God by the law” (3:11). Paul consistently taught that being right with God is not accomplished by legal obedience or externalistic human performance.
Second, this text affirms that the Holy Spirit is a life-giving person. The Spirit can actually do something that no external method can: produce life. Here Paul describes how true ministry works, assuming implicitly that some ministry works and generates life, whereas other ministry produces lifelessness or death. Further, the means to these varying ultimate ends mirror the radical choices within this verse. Some accord with God’s truth; others do not.
Toward the beginning of 2 Corinthians 3, Paul raises several questions about authenticity. Does he need credentials or letters of commendation to be considered authentic? His answer is that the fruit of his authenticity is seen in the fruit of his disciples’ living Christianity. The Corinthian Christians were products of the Spirit’s life-giving work. Thus, the apostle needs no verification by “the letter.” Paul knew that Christ-transformed lives were far more lasting than ink or stone-chiseled characters.
Paul’s confidence is not in himself, his abilities, or his adherence to formula. He knows that life in the Spirit, unlike legalism, is not extinguishable; neither does he think of his own ministerial competence as derived from official letters. One verse (5) gleefully announces that God makes us sufficient, thus curing our deficiency. God brings our competency, in other words, out of the hole and all the way up to the adequate range.
Any minister who realizes his beginning deficiency will attempt to serve in the power of the Spirit, not the law. The apostle knew this and several other things besides. First, he knew that the letter could kill; that is, one could be outwardly correct but not produce life. Second, he knew that the Spirit generates or cultures life. Third, it is life, the abundant kind that Jesus offered (John 10:10), which the Spirit gives.
With such confidence, Paul was able to face floggings, misunderstandings, shipwrecks, betrayals, and varieties of abuse. He knew that the surpassing greatness of serving Christ and the working of the Spirit was better than relying on human accomplishments.
In like manner, having known that his abilities were “altogether useless,” John Calvin declared that God’s grace, not law-keeping, qualified him “for an office, for which he was previously unqualified.” The contrast here is between an outward-only ministry of the Word versus one that reaches inward and changes hearts, which subsequently reflect behaviors that conform to God’s law.
The Spirit is powerful; He does change lives. Whether it is in counseling, mentoring, evangelism, missions, childrearing, or preaching, we must beg God to send His life-giving Spirit who quickens the Word.
Don’t we need a reformation of lifegiving ministry? And whether respecting the civil, pedagogical, or didactic use of the law, the Spirit should always be sought to give life.